firstamendmentcenter.org: Religious liberty in public schools - FAQs


Teachers' religious liberties

May a teacher wear religious garb to school provided the teacher does not proselytize to the students?

Probably not. It is likely that many courts would allow a school to prohibit teachers' religious garb in order to maintain religious neutrality. The courts may view such garb as creating a potential establishment-clause problem, particularly at the elementary school level.

Pennsylvania and Oregon have laws that prohibit teachers from wearing religious clothing to schools. Both laws have been upheld in court challenges brought under the First Amendment and Title VII, the major anti-discrimination employment law. The courts reasoned that the statutes furthered the states' goal of ensuring neutrality with respect to religion in the schools.

In the Pennsylvania case, U.S. v. Board of Education, the 3rd Circuit rejected the Title VII religious-discrimination claim of a Muslim teacher who was prevented from wearing her religious clothing to school. The school acted pursuant to a state law, called the “Garb Statute,” which provided: “[N]o teacher in any public school shall wear in said school or while engaged in the performance of his duty as such teacher any dress, mark, emblem or insignia indicating the fact that such teacher is a member or adherent of any religious order, sect or denomination.”

The teacher and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission contended that the school should have allowed the teacher to wear her head scarf and long, loose dress as a “reasonable accommodation” of her religious faith. The appeals court disagreed, determining that “the preservation of religious neutrality is a compelling state interest.”

In its 1986 decision Cooper v. Eugene School District, the Oregon Supreme Court rejected the free-exercise challenge of a Sikh teacher suspended for wearing religious clothing — a white turban and white clothes — to her special education classes. The Oregon high court upheld the state law, which provided: “No teacher in any public school shall wear any religious dress while engaged in the performance of duties as a teacher.” The court wrote that “the aim of maintaining the religious neutrality of the public schools furthers a constitutional obligation beyond an ordinary policy preference of the legislature.”

The First Amendment Center’s A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools provides that “teachers are permitted to wear non-obtrusive jewelry, such as a cross or Star of David. But teachers should not wear clothing with a proselytizing message (e.g. a ‘Jesus Saves’ T-shirt)."


May teachers and administrators pray or otherwise express their faith while at school?

As employees of the government, public school teachers and administrators are subject to the establishment clause and thus required to be neutral concerning religion while carrying out their duties. That means, for example, that school officials do not have the right to pray with or in the presence of students during the school day.

Of course, teachers and administrators — like students — bring their faith with them through the schoolhouse door each morning. Because of the First Amendment, however, school officials who wish to pray or engage in other religious activities — unless they are silent — should do so outside the presence of students.

If a group of teachers wishes to meet for prayer or scriptural study in the faculty lounge during free time in the school day or before or after school, most legal experts see no constitutional reason why they should not be permitted to do so, as long as the activity is outside the presence of students and does not interfere with their duties or the rights of other teachers.

When not on duty, of course, educators are free like all other citizens to practice their faith. But school officials must refrain from using their position in the public school to promote their outside religious activities.

The U.S. Department of Education put it this way in its 2003 guidelines on prayer in public schools:

“When acting in their official capacities as representatives of the state, teachers, school administrators, and other school employees are prohibited by the Establishment Clause from encouraging or discouraging prayer, and from actively participating in such activity with students. Teachers may, however, take part in religious activities where the overall context makes clear that they are not participating in their official capacities. Before school or during lunch, for example, teachers may meet with other teachers for prayer or Bible study to the same extent that they may engage in other conversation or nonreligious activities. Similarly, teachers may participate in their personal capacities in privately sponsored baccalaureate ceremonies.”